The name "Rome"
Mars was the Roman god of war and second only to Jupiter in the Roman pantheon. Although most of the myths involving the god were borrowed from the Greek god of war Ares, Mars, nevertheless, had some features which were uniquely Roman. Considered more level-headed than the often impulsive and disruptive Ares, Mars was also seen as a more virtuous figure by the more martial-oriented Romans. As a protector of Rome and the Roman way of life and as a defender of city borders and frontiers, important festivals connected to warfare were held in his honour and the god was also closely associated with the wolf and woodpecker.
Mars was considered the father of Romulus and Remus, the mythical twin founders of Rome. According to the story, their mother, the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia, was raped by Mars while she slept, and in her dreams she had a vision where she dropped a hairpin to the ground, and from which there sprang two twin trees. Over time one of the trees grew so large that it covered the entire world with its shade, a reference to the ultimate success of Romulus and the growth of the huge Roman Empire.
The bee was the symbol of the Barberini family and can be seen dotted around paintings and doorframes in the Palazzo Barberini, as well as numerous fountains and churches throughout the city. The Barberini family came to Rome in the 16th century from Florence, reaching the pinnacle of power and prominence in the 17th century when Cardinal Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII Barberini. They were originally known as the Tafani family, meaning horsefly, an aggressive insects that bites but quickly realized that the bee, with its many symbolic and mythological associations, would be a better way to assert their magnificence and divine right to papacy…and so the Barberini bee came into being.
Most people today think of the she-wolf as the symbol of Rome. Until the Renaissance, however, it was the lion - a symbol of strength, sovereignty and justice — that embodied Rome’s secular government.
During the Middle Ages, at the bottom of the grand staircase leading to the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline Hill, was an ancient statue of a Lion attacking a Horse (4th c. BC). It was in front of this lion that death sentences were announced and sometimes carried out.
Medieval Rome was so strongly associated with the lion that people believed the city was laid out in the shape of this beast. Cola di Rienzo, politician and popular leader in the 14th century, wrote, “The very walls of the city have been built in the shape of a lion.” The king of Naples, Robert of Anjou, even went so far as to gift a lion to the city of Rome. The city’s magistrates were so pleased they subsequently requested live lions from the Medici family in Florence. Kept in cages on the Capitoline Hill (a scary thought- they occasionally escaped!) the lions embodied the city’s political authority until the late 15th century, when the pope’s wolf took over the lion’s territory.
The she-wolf represented the power of the papacy. For pagans and Christians it served as a sacred symbol and a reminder of the bond between this world and the next. Pagans associated the wolf with Mars, the god of war.
The legend of Romulus and Remus nurtured by a she-wolf therefore symbolized the warrior spirit of the Romans.
Christians appropriated the symbol by believing wolves were agents of God sent to punish sinners, or agents of the Devil sent to test one’s faith. In both instances wolf iconography is crucial for the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The image of the twins and the she-wolf has been a symbol of Rome since ancient times and is one of the most recognizable icons of ancient mythology.
A famous bronze sculpture of the Capitoline She-Wolf (5th c. BC or medieval) occupied the Lateran Palace of the popes until 1471, when it was donated to the municipality of Rome by Pope Sixtus IV. This she-Wolf was one of several ancient sculptures “returned” to the Romans at this time, an event that kick-started a fervor for Roman antiquities and led to the founding of the Capitoline Museums.
This gift from church to state was not without a political motive. In his persistent attempts to fashion Rome into the capital of Christendom, and diminish the power of the independent municipality of Rome, Sixtus IV specified that the She-Wolf was to be placed on the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori for all to see. Political control over the city had thus literally and symbolically been transferred to the papal court, and the Capitoline Hill, which once stood for the municipality’s independence (embodied by the proud lion) came to signify instead knowledge of the past through Christian teaching (embodied by the she-wolf).
After Michelangelo redesigned the piazza, the sculpture of the Capitoline She-Wolf was brought inside the loggia of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, in what is now the Hall of the She-Wolf, where we can still admire it today. And the ferocious Roman lion? The sculpture is proudly displayed in Marcus Aurelius Exedra of the Capitoline Museums, but other than historians, there are few people who remember it as the powerful symbol of an independent Rome.